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From “The New York Times,” I’m Michael Barbaro. This is “The Daily.”
Today, across industries and income brackets, a growing number of American workers are discovering that their productivity is being electronically monitored by their bosses. My colleague, Jodi Kantor, on what a “Times” investigation has revealed about a fundamental change in how we work.
It’s Wednesday, August 24.
In studio. To tell me about this woman that you recently met in your reporting, Carol Kraemer?
So Carol Kraemer took a job as a vice president at a business software company in Texas. She has an MBA she had a long history in finance. And this job was supervising this company’s books, its transactions. And she was well paid. The salary was about $200 an hour.
That’s good money.
But pretty quickly she realized that her paychecks seemed low.
So she’s sitting there in her home office. These are remote jobs. She’s looking at her paychecks, trying to figure out what’s going on.
And what she realizes is that this is about how this company monitors her and her fellow workers with high-tech software. The software is keeping track of her computer use, her keyboard activity. It measured how active she was on her keyboard.
And every 10 minutes at some random point that she couldn’t anticipate, the company took photos of her and her work, a screenshot of whatever she was working on, and a photo of her face. And they were doing that to verify whether or not she was working. And here’s the thing, Michael. The company was using that to pay Carol and the other workers only for the minutes when they appeared active.
If she was clicking away at a spreadsheet, doing demonstrable work, she was fine. She would be paid for that 10-minute increment. But as soon as she got a cup of coffee or answered the doorbell —
— or went to the bathroom?
— or went to the bathroom, she risked not being paid for that time.
And is that why her paychecks seemed low?
Yes, because even if she had worked for 9 and 1/2 minutes out of 10 minutes, if that screenshot showed her inactive, if she was gone or distracted for that 30 seconds, she wouldn’t be paid for that increment. But there was also another reason. This digital tracking actually missed a lot of her work.
What do you mean?
Because all of us, she was also working offline. She was reading long printouts. She was mentoring the colleagues she supervised. She would sometimes scrawl out math problems on paper instead of doing them on the computer. And none of that was recorded by the system. So if she wanted to get paid, she needed to make a special appeal for that.
Huh. So Carol working from home and doing what comes very naturally to those of us who have the privilege of working from home might go get a cup of coffee with a document in her hand. She’s working, but her company thinks she’s not working and it’s going to basically dock her.
Correct. So when Carol described all of this to me, what she explained was that she had really been around the block by this point in her career. She was very seasoned. She had had a lot of jobs. She had seen it all.
And she even knew going into this job that there was some type of monitoring or surveillance. But when she actually saw how it was playing out, she was horrified. It really threw her.
I mean, that makes sense, because what you are describing, what Carol experienced, it really evokes an almost sci-fi level workplace dystopia. So how common is her experience?
So for months my colleague Arya Sundaram and I have been investigating this phenomenon. We’ve been hearing from hundreds of employees across the country who have experienced elements of this, the companies that do it, the software makers who make the programs. And what I can tell you is that elements of this are far more common than you would think. We are looking at the rise of call it the employee productivity score, meaning technology is giving employers a means to gauge who is doing how much when. And it’s already impacting things like how much and when people get paid.
This is one of the biggest expansions of employer power in generations. For example, we took the top 10 US employers by number of employees, private employers, right, companies that hire huge numbers of people. We found that 8 of the top 10 are doing some form of individual employee productivity monitoring, in many cases in real time.
Wow. So tell us the story of how this happened, how this level of productivity scoring, as you just called it, became the norm in so many different industries.
So it started in places like call centers. And you’ve already heard a lot about how it’s been employed in warehouses, with workers stuffing boxes.
Right, a company like Amazon, a company we’ve talked with you, Jodi, a lot about.
Exactly. Amazon has famously measured every single pause a warehouse worker takes. It’s a kind of shockingly precise system. And it’s made companies like Amazon very, very efficient. So when I was doing that reporting on Amazon, I kept thinking, wow, this is so characteristic of Amazon. This is such an Amazon innovation.
But I was right and I was wrong, because over the past decade or so, the workplace transformed into much more of a place of measurement for almost all of us. Companies wanted to get better. They wanted to use their resources better. They wanted to manage labor and save more money. So they basically used these newly available powers of data collection and analysis that have really exploded in the last decade or so to take a far more quantitative approach to employment.
And it sounds like along the way this monitoring that we always understood to some degree was in place at these warehouses and logistics companies has moved into industries where we never anticipated it would go.
Exactly. It is moving up the income ladder into higher-paying jobs. But there was kind of a taint to it. A lot of companies hesitated to put this kind of tracking in place. And even some that did were embarrassed to talk about it. So this is quietly growing in the background. And then along comes the pandemic.
All of a sudden, this kind of monitoring gets a new legitimacy, because they’re saying we can’t see you. We don’t know what our people are doing. We’re no longer in day-to-day contact. We have to find a new way of working. We are tools to get a better read on what is going on with our own workforce.
There was one boss I talked to who said, Jodi, I did not want to do this. I resisted it for a long time. But I had to implement this software because I had no idea where my people were. I would call them and they wouldn’t call me back. And it was like a black hole. I did not want to do this. But this is what’s necessary in the workplace now.
So we actually spoke to one of the guys who created the system that Carol Kraemer had to use, Federico Mazzoli. And what he initially found was that the productivity gains were great. The amount and variety of bad behavior that they caught was fascinating.
Well, workers were working for another company during the day. They were essentially two-timing their employer, which does happen a little with remote work. They were watching video games. They were watching porn, et cetera, et cetera.
And so the software gave the company X-ray vision. And they were able to just eliminate the people who were truly derelict. So this taboo begins to lift because companies start feeling like, hey, this is something we need to do.
Right. So it sounds like the pandemic lowers this big barrier to expanding this technology, because now employees want to work from home. And companies say to them, OK, if you want that, in exchange we need the accountability of a monitoring system. Is that more or less how this plays out?
Yes. And some of our sources even have a name for this. They call it the bargain.
And what they’re saying is —
The bargain being you get to monitor me, I don’t have to come into the office?
Exactly. For instance, just a few weeks ago right here in New York City, we saw this with the MTA, the Transit Authority. In June employees like engineers, lawyers — these are white-collar employees — they were told they could work remotely one day a week, which is what they wanted, if they agreed to full-time monitoring.
Full time, isn’t that one day they’re at home?
No, no, no. If you want to work at home one day a week, you’re going to be monitored all week.
So I want to talk more about the precise forms that this monitoring takes day to day for a typical worker.
So this is part of why this took so much reporting to understand, because there are so many varieties of this. It’s not like one program, like Facebook, that we can really scrutinize. But I’m just going to give you a couple of quick examples to show you the range.
On the quieter, less obtrusive end, take a company like JPMorgan, one of the country’s most powerful financial institutions. This is now routine employment practice there. These programs, they just run in the background. They’re tracking how employees spend their days, for making phone calls, composing emails. Now, financial institutions routinely record things for compliance reasons. But in this case, JPMorgan also acknowledges that this is part of a quest for what they call business efficiency.
And what they say there is, look, this doesn’t come up every day in performance evaluations. But it is there. It is accumulating. It is a record that can be checked. It’s a lot of knowledge that your employer suddenly has about you.
Then let’s go to another pretty well-known company, UnitedHealth. It’s a giant. This is hundreds of thousands of employees. So it turns out that they have been tracking many of their workers, even people like social workers, for what they call idle time, meaning there’s something running in the background on their computer. And every time they stop keyboard activity, it’s noted.
And there were these formulas. As part of the performance evaluation, the company would look at how much idle time you had. And if it was too much, it could become a problem.
Fascinating. What’s another example?
OK, so let’s talk more about examples that are much more in workers’ faces. For example, radiologists who, as they’re doing their work, right up there on their screen, they’re seeing a scoreboard. It’s showing them their inactivity time and also how their productivity stacks up against their colleagues.
And this is an issue in the world of podcasting. And I’ll —
I’ll tell you. Not here, but there is a very popular hiring platform called Upwork. This is for knowledge workers, skilled workers, everybody from accountants to graphic designers to podcast producers. And one of the ways that Upwork manages the freelancer-employer relationship is through the screenshots every 10 minutes that are a lot like the ones that Carol Kraemer had to use.
So we talked to people who were doing jobs through Upwork. And we talked to them about these 10-minute increments. I would say to people, OK, so say your screen looks good, but then you get a text from your kid, right, and your screenshot is marred essentially by an interruption. What do you do? And there were workers who would say to me, well, I didn’t even submit those screenshots because I want a perfect record.
That’s throwing away their own work time.
They are deleting their own labor and not getting paid for it. So from all these different examples — and, obviously, there’s a lot of variety here. But the common strand is that it’s like there’s a new kind of clock in the working world. And instead of just you watching that clock, the clock is watching you.
We’ll be right back.
Jodi, I have to say, this is a pretty fundamental change in the nature of work, because workers of the sort you’re talking about — you mentioned podcasting. I’m a podcaster, so I’m relating to this.
I think we’ve generally felt like we could be trusted to manage our own time and get the work done. And what you’re describing isn’t that kind of trust. Instead, it’s the employer watching over the employee keystroke by keystroke.
Exactly. It is a huge change, Michael. And it’s sort of like these workers, these lawyers, these accountants, these people with college degrees, graduate degrees, it’s like they’re waking up to the kinds of frustrations that lower-paid workers have expressed for years. They’re talking about lack of agency, lack of control. They’re talking about all the feelings that monitoring provokes.
And these are the same things I’ve been hearing minimum wage workers and Amazon workers say in interviews for years. But here’s the thing — not all workers hate the system.
Hmm, well explain that. What virtue, what upside do these workers see in having these productivity monitoring systems looking over their shoulders?
So in my conversations with workers who really liked it, what they emphasized was that this helped them stay focused. They said they became more efficient, more aware of how they used their time. They did not want to spend time on tasks that accomplished nothing. And look, we all know that cell phones are a menace to concentration. You’re deeply immersed in some task and then your phone pings and boom, you have lost 15 minutes.
Right, you get derailed.
So this software essentially says don’t let yourself get distracted. Put away your phone. Put it on do not disturb, whatever.
Right, because there’s a real cost to not doing it.
Exactly. And these workers described liking the feeling of getting a lot done. They described it like wearing a Fitbit, where there is satisfaction in seeing that you’ve taken 10,000 steps that day.
Right, in this case there’s the satisfaction of knowing you worked really hard and it was measured. You weren’t idle. You had a really good day.
Exactly. Then we talked to a whole group of workers who believe that tracking makes the world of work more fair.
Well, a lot of them were women. They were women at different levels. And they talked about wanting to feel seen at work. They talked about wanting to work in an environment in which rewards are not based on who is schmoozing with who or who is going out drinking with who, but instead on who is really being industrious. And they felt that monitoring helped them prove how good they really were.
Right, because data is meritocratic. And we all know that at companies there are entire tiers of workers who are paid the same, and yet clear differences in the work ethic and productivity. And this monitoring makes really clear who’s standing out, who’s lagging.
Theoretically, yes. But in many cases, the measurements are just wrong.
Hmm, you hinted at this with the story of Carol Kraemer.
These systems are meant to capture online work. But so much of what’s important about work takes place offline, like all of the things Carol told us about, like thinking, mentoring, sitting down and going through a really long printout on paper. So in some cases, it’s these in-between moments at work that are not being captured. But honestly, in some cases, it’s the central work itself that’s not being recorded.
So when it comes to those social workers at UnitedHealth, the way their laptops worked is that every time they ceased typing for a few minutes, they were marked idle. But their laptops were going idle in part when they were in sensitive conversations with patients at drug treatment facilities. So here they are, doing the hardest part of their jobs, and yet they’re being marked idle.
Right, and you can’t really be typing at the same time that you’re talking to a patient. I mean, you could, but that would be really weird.
In some cases I think laptops weren’t even allowed in, say, detox facilities.
So a real clear flaw in these measurements.
Exactly. And that’s part of why these metrics create so much distrust, because workers feel that they cannot trust these measurements to capture what it really means to do a great job.
Right, and if you’re being monitored, you may not like that. But if it’s accurate, you can at least respect it. If it’s totally wrong, then it must be deeply demoralizing.
Right, it’s like there are two debates here. Philosophically, should we be monitored or not? But also, if we’re going to be monitored, can the systems at least be accurate? Is work really measurable?
And so what do workers do when this monitoring software contains these kinds of flaws?
Well, it’s given rise to a whole new kind of behavior, which honestly, depending on your point of view, you could either characterize as correction or cheating.
Hi, everybody. I’m so excited because my new mouse jiggler has arrived. And I’ve been working from home so much lately that I think this will help a lot.
Do you know what a mouse jiggler is?
Hi. If you work from home, you need a mouse jiggler. It jiggles your mouse to make it seem like you’re working when you’re not working.
It’s a little thing that you attach on your keyboard. You can buy it online. And it creates the appearance of computer activity.
No software to install and undetectable by your IT department.
Just go on TikTok, because TikTok is filled with instructional videos, homemade ones, on how to use a mouse jiggler to beat these systems.
If, say, you need to get up and go do something quick or take a bathroom break or go do something with the kids, let the dog out, whatever, then this is going to be able to keep your computer from going idle.
It’s a cheating mechanism.
It’s a cheating mechanism.
Never go yellow on Teams again. Go ahead and live your best life. Do your thing.
If we were in a museum of 2022, I think one of the devices that should be behind glass and examined for future generations is a mouse jiggler.
So these floors are requiring monitored workers to get creative.
OK, so are these flaws making corporations rethink the wisdom of using the software as widely as they are?
Well, so it turns out that we’re now hearing a lot from UnitedHealth employees, because it turns out that in the days after our story was published, they were told that this company is no longer going to time track you. So we’re waiting to hear more about those exact changes.
Even Amazon, which is famous for its monitoring, is changing its policies a little. They’re still counting everything, but they are now saying that this famous policy they had that was really notorious, it was called time off task, they are retiring that phrase. And they are only going to look into chunks of idle time that are greater than 15 minutes, that they want to recognize that people do need to have a conversation with a boss or spend a couple of extra minutes in the bathroom.
And then remember Federico Mazzoli, who we talked about? He’s the guy who created the technology that Carol Kraemer had to use. A few years after he helped invent it he started using his own creation.
And he found that it made him really anxious. And he even began to mistrust the measurements, to feel that it wasn’t accurate. He now says that tool was powerful, but that it was dangerous.
Hmm, that is very notable, that one of the creators of this entire system now dislikes his own creation.
OK, Jodi, it feels like in theory the flaws you’re describing can be worked out and probably will be worked out over time. And I’m getting the sense from you that while some companies saw your investigation and thought, well, maybe we shouldn’t do this as much as we are, that this technology is here to stay. Is that fair?
Listen, maybe it can be fixed. Maybe it can’t. But it doesn’t really feel like the clock can be turned back, in part because this is spreading to areas of work that nobody ever thought could be measured quite in this way. For example, when we asked “New York Times” readers what kind of monitoring they were experiencing, we were very surprised, because we kept getting notes from hospice chaplains.
Hospice chaplains? People who administer end-of-life spiritual care?
Ministers who are sitting there with the dying, talking through some of the biggest questions there are. What kind of life have I lived? What do I do with my regrets? What’s going to happen to my family?
And we decided to focus in particular on a group of hospice chaplains that we found in Minnesota. And these chaplains in Minnesota, they had always had their productivity monitored to some extent. But two years ago, a stricter point system was introduced at their workplace. They had to accrue more productivity points than before.
And the values were very specific, as little as one point for a visit to the dying, 0.25 points for a condolence call to a grieving family. And every morning they had to predict how many points they would get. And then every night their software would tabulate their totals. But they said the problem was that dying defies prediction. So as they went about their days, their plans would change, because patients would break down or families would say, no, don’t come, or patients would actually draw their final breaths.
So they were constantly remaking the schedule. And they were left with this dilemma of do I see the patients who I feel in my professional judgment most need to be seen? Or do I see the patients who get the points? And some of them told me it changed the work they did with the dying. It changed who they saw when and how long they spent and the depth with which they could do their work.
In reflecting on everything that you have told us here, it feels like there are two ways to think about working under these new monitored conditions. The first, and it feels especially tethered to what you just said about these chaplains, is that it erodes something essential about the nature of the work and the relationship that workers have with their bosses, because it reduces what had once felt very meaningful to these trackable metrics, takes the thing that we think of as the defining quality in many of our lives, which is our work, and says it’s a point or not a point, right?
The other way to look at it is that maybe it liberates workers from what was maybe the illusion that their job was anything more than these points and productivity metrics in the eyes of their bosses. And it tells them what their company really thinks of them and maybe always thought of them.
That’s the big question. And it’s one we all face in our jobs. To what degree is work just transactional at the core? I mean, it’s a fear, right? Am I just a bunch of clicks? Are you —
Exactly. Are you are you a podcast ranking at the end of the day? And the software arouses a lot of fear and a lot of debate because it says yes, at the end of the day, you are only what your bosses can measure.
Well, Jodi, thank you very, very much. This has been a really thoughtful and surprising conversation.
Thank you, Michael.
We’ll be right back.
Here’s what else you need to know today.
On Tuesday, a federal jury found two men guilty of plotting to kidnap the Democratic governor of Michigan, Gretchen Whitmer, in a closely-watched case of right-wing domestic terrorism. Throughout the trial, prosecutors presented evidence that the men, Barry Croft and Adam Fox, were angry with Whitmer for imposing government restrictions at the height of the pandemic. Their plan involved capturing Whitmer at her vacation home, detonating explosives to distract responding police, and perhaps touching off a civil war. Defense lawyers for the men argued unsuccessfully that they were egged on by undercover FBI agents and informants and would never have come up with such an elaborate plot on their own.
And in a series of closely-watched elections on Tuesday, Democrat Pat Ryan defeated his Republican opponent, Marc Molinaro, in a special election for Congress in Upstate New York. The race was seen as an early test of both parties’ strength in this fall’s midterms and the role that abortion may play in those races. Ryan has defended abortion rights. Molinaro has opposed them.
And in a Democratic primary in Manhattan, Congressman Jerry Nadler defeated Congresswoman Carolyn Maloney. The two Democratic lawmakers were forced into a bitter confrontation after their neighboring districts were redrawn.
Finally, in Florida, representative Charlie Crist emerged as the winner of the Democratic primary for governor and will now face off against Republican Governor Ron DeSantis, a potential presidential candidate in 2024.
Today’s episode was produced by Rikki Novetsky, Michael Simon Johnson, and Mooj Zadie. It was edited by Liz O. Baylen with help from Paige Cowett, contains original music by Brad Fisher, Dan Powell, and Marion Lozano, and was engineered by Elisheba Ittoop. Our theme music is by Jim Brunberg and Ben Landsverk of Wonderly.
That’s it for “The Daily.” I’m Michael Barbaro. See you tomorrow.
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Brad Fisher, Dan Powell and
Across many industries, technology is giving employers a means to electronically gauge what their workers are doing — a fundamental change in workplace practice.
A Times investigation has found that such tracking software is unexpectedly common, with the information used to make decisions about when and how much employees get paid.
Jodi Kantor, an investigative reporter for The New York Times.
Across industries and incomes, more employees are being tracked, recorded and ranked. What is gained, companies say, is efficiency and accountability. What is lost?
There are a lot of ways to listen to The Daily. Here’s how.
We aim to make transcripts available the next workday after an episode’s publication. You can find them at the top of the page.
Jodi Kantor contributed reporting.
The Daily is made by Lisa Tobin, Rachel Quester, Lynsea Garrison, Clare Toeniskoetter, Paige Cowett, Michael Simon Johnson, Brad Fisher, Chris Wood, Jessica Cheung, Stella Tan, Alexandra Leigh Young, Lisa Chow, Eric Krupke, Marc Georges, Luke Vander Ploeg, M.J. Davis Lin, Dan Powell, Dave Shaw, Sydney Harper, Robert Jimison, Mike Benoist, Liz O. Baylen, Asthaa Chaturvedi, Rachelle Bonja, Diana Nguyen, Marion Lozano, Corey Schreppel, Anita Badejo, Rob Szypko, Elisheba Ittoop, Chelsea Daniel, Mooj Zadie, Patricia Willens, Rowan Niemisto, Jody Becker, Rikki Novetsky, John Ketchum, Nina Feldman, Will Reid, Carlos Prieto, Sofia Milan, Ben Calhoun and Susan Lee.
Our theme music is by Jim Brunberg and Ben Landsverk of Wonderly. Special thanks to Sam Dolnick, Paula Szuchman, Lisa Tobin, Larissa Anderson, Cliff Levy, Lauren Jackson, Julia Simon, Mahima Chablani, Desiree Ibekwe, Wendy Dorr, Elizabeth Davis-Moorer, Jeffrey Miranda, Renan Borelli and Maddy Masiello.